The Great Album Series

Big Sugar - Dear M.F.

Hypnotic Records (1995)
Blues, Rock

A have a few rules for The Great Album Series, no Greatest Hit Compilations, no Live Albums, and No E.Ps. The reason for no live or greatest hits albums is pretty straight forward, as the songs are picked (usually) with popularity in mind, and both are (usually) just excuses to finish out record obligations. Live at Budakon is Cheap Trick's most popular (and frankly their best) album, but all those songs can be found somewhere else.... in the case of Cheap Trick, they can be found on a series of sup-par albums. E.P.'s usually have a similar problem. The first track is (usually) the single from the bands upcoming release, and the rest of the album is filler, discarded tracks that wouldn't make the album for one reason or another, and a series of remixs by DJ's you've never heard of (who the hell is Trent... Reznor?)
But, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. One exception is Big Sugar's EP Dear M.F.

During the mid-90's I was in a transition phase. I was trying the bridge the gap between the Classic rock and blues I grew up loving and the modern music of the times. Big Sugar was an obvious choice. In 1993 they released (to some) their best album 500 pounds. 1997 saw the release of their most popular album Hemi-Vision. But sandwiched in between these 2 albums was this E.P.

The album begins with a cover of Traffic's hit "Dear Mr Fantasy". This is basically a killer riff masquerading as a song. The 4 beat riff is infectious, and a staple for Rock Guitarists since the 70's. Check out Johnson's first solo, he interprets the melody with a slide, which leads into a manic, repetitive flurry of notes. Band Leader Gordie Johnson has a great ear for classic rock jems, later covering BTO's "Let it Ride"

Next up is "Goodbye Train". This song feels like a blues standard, but is a johnson original. Big Sugar's auxiliary player Kelly Hoppe, plays a subtle harmonica backing pattern through most of the song, a nice touch as Hoppe's playing can become a bit intrusive on later albums. This song gets in my head every time I step on the subway platform.

Gordie Johnson's guitar playing has just as much to do with tone as it does with Technique. Maybe more so. Just listen to the first 4 bars of "Motherless Children". A simple 3 chord pattern introduces the song, and it's all about tone. Big Ballsy guitar sounds. Hoppe's Harmonica playing on the hook is dead on (again), helping to create an urgency that really drives the song. This track is a traditional blues/folk track, and the simplistic lyrics are typical of the old blues men. "Motherless Children have a hard time when their mother's dead". Simple, direct and to the point.

My personal favorite track on the E.P. is the jazz standard "A Night in Tunisia". The song is played with a surf guitar feel, and a little slower than most jazz interpretations. It basically oozes cool. Al Cross takes a great drum solo in the middle section, but the rock of the song (and Big Sugar in general) is bass player Gary Lowe. He always plays what needs to be played, no more, no less. The mark of a great bass player.

Big Sugar was THE act to see live. They were loud, and they were exciting. I never saw them do anything quite like "Ledbelly (dub)" though. Johnson informs the audience that they are part of a live experiment, and begins playing a overdriven melody on the guitar (tone, tone, tone). What follows is a 7 minute Dub inspired jam. This is a preview of what was to come in the career of Big Sugar, as the band dabbled with Dub and Reggae on their next two albums Heated and Brothers and Sisters are you Ready?. Gordie Johnson even did a straight up Dub remix album of Big Sugar tracks called Alkaline: Extra Long Life.

I can't stress enough how important tone and taste are when it comes to Gordie Johnson's guitar playing. One thing I've always loved about his playing, is that he's not necessarily the most technically proficient player, but he's the type of guitarist who can say more with one note than most can say with a hundred. What we have on this E.P. is a band on the top of their game. They went on to a bit more success, but the songs became a bit more commercial, a bit more obvious. If you're looking to get into Big Sugar (or just a fantastic Rock and Roll album), I suggest picking this EP up, than pick up 500 Pounds.


Joel Emberson said...

It was Gordie Johnson that made me fall in love with the gibson doubleneck guitar. To see him in concert with 4 of them just sitting there waiting to be abused, it was surreal. Goodbye train is such a great song...

Shawn William Clarke said...

Yeah, I also love Martin Tielli's Ibanez double neck. Mostly for the old canadian flag on it. Big Sugar was one of the best live acts I've ever seen

Shubhajit said...

Eagerly waiting for you to cover Dylan in your great album series.

Shawn William Clarke said...

Awesome! I love Dylan. I'd probably pick something odd like "Time Out of Mind".